What’s the Title of Your Book?

An exercise for figuring out your value at work or anywhere else

Photo: Pornsawan Sangmanee/EyeEm/Getty Images

If you’ve never written a book before, you fall into one of two groups: You either will write a book someday, or you could write a book someday.

Even if you have no plans to write a book, you should figure out what your book would be. Because in some ways, it’s the central question of your life. What’s my purpose? What do I have to give? What’s my value? What am I worth? The answer is always singular, and it’s always revealing.

Everyone has a book in them. The person in your professional life you’re most happy to see at the other end of a Zoom call? Author. The Target associate who correctly guessed your star sign as she led you to the tea kettles? Author. Your favorite aunt? She could write, like, four books.

Books combine experience and knowledge with values, and the hope that others want to hear what you have to say. Everyone possesses those qualities, and everyone can combine them into an important message for the world. Here’s how to find your message.

What your book should be about

When you want to sell a nonfiction book to a publishing house, the first thing you do is write a proposal. Book proposals are filled with all sorts of information: How long you think the book should be; what (very successful) books are similar to the one you want to write; and what you’ll do to promote the book when it’s published. But there’s a single question undergirding the proposal, and it’s a weirdly difficult one to answer.

The question is: What do you know that no one else does?

So, what’s the answer? I’ll go first. I think I know how to use seemingly small social opportunities — asserting yourself in a meeting, saying hello, smiling — to have a big impact on other people, especially at work. This understanding seems to turn my own awkwardness and anxiety into a professional and creative advantage. I think I have a unique perspective as someone who was thrown into the New York City media world mid-career and felt way in over my head for much of that time. Over the years, I’ve accumulated plenty of anecdotes that help illustrate these themes.

I hadn’t seen another book like that. So I wrote one.

Here are some prompts that might help you find your answer:

What would your closest friend say is your greatest skill? Why? If you can tell me how to do that, then you have a book! Is the answer something kind of random and small? That’s okay! You can figure out a way to make it big and accessible for lots of people. What is your superpower in relationships? What is something that happened to you that has probably never happened to anyone else?

Now, what’s important to you? How do you want the world to change? What should people be thinking about more? What should they be doing more of? What is a difficult problem you think you can help solve? How can you use your skill to help solve it?

Photo: Ross McCammon

Bonus! How to come up with a title for your book.

A title is helpful for crystallizing things into a single idea. What’s your title going to be? Your badge? Your brand? This isn’t a finishing touch. It’s more important than that. A title can help you focus your mission and your sense of your own personal story even further. And it’s a work in progress. As your book changes, so should your title.

Most nonfiction titles are two-prong. They take a mundane word and combine it with one or two other words to reflect a surprising idea. Which makes sense: A purpose always involves an improvement on the essential.

[DULL NOUN]: [EXCITING SUBTITLE]
E.g., Towel: The Cloth that Changed the World

[INHERENTLY INTERESTING VERB] + [MUNDANE NOUN]
E.g., Who Seized My Chair?

The [YOUR LAST NAME] Method: How to Turn [BAD THING] Into [GOOD THING]
E.g., The Smith Method: How to Turn Constantly Losing Your Phone Into Living the Good Life

Now all you have to do is write your book. Or not. What matters is that you’ve identified the intersection of your experience and knowledge and hopes and values — and a cool name — for the creative project that is you.

Executive Editor, Medium//author, Works Well With Others//writing 1–2x week mostly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way//rossmccammon.com

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